“It’s because the Arabs used to control Spain!” laughs Mohammed.
The café feels like a little piece of Syria. Arabic is the lingua franca, and the coffee that is served is the rich, Syrian type, spiced with cardamom. But Café Latakia is in Antakya, a small Turkish town that lies just 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the Syrian border. Since the conflict over the border erupted three years ago, thousands of Syrians have settled in the town—and many of them come from Latakia governorate, which is just a short distance away over the mountains.
Mohammed used to work in construction in Latakia City, but when he joined in the first demonstrations against Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in 2011 his life became increasingly dangerous and difficult. His construction contracts came from the government, and after the start of the uprising he stopped getting paid for his work. Then his family started to receive threats from the shabiha, the state-sponsored militia that terrorize anyone who opposes Assad. Two years ago, he decided he had to leave.
“I came to Antakya straight off,” he says, “because it is close, and I had visited it before the revolution.”
At that time Antakya was a small, sleepy town, a tourist destination for Christian pilgrims because it is home to one of the oldest churches in the world, but otherwise a place where nothing much ever happened. As the war spread across the northern countryside and into the city of Aleppo, thousands of people flocked across the border. The poorest take sanctuary in the string of refugee camps that line the border, but middle-class refugees such as Mohammed have moved to the towns of Hatay province. Antakya has been transformed.
“Antakya has changed too much,” Mohammed laughs. “When we first arrived, the streets were empty by around 7:00 or 8:00 pm and everything was closed. Now because of the Syrians, you can feel that even late at night it is still awake.”
Many of the people who came here early on in the conflict believed—and hoped—that their stay would be short. But as the war dragged on and worsened, they realized that they could be in Antakya for years rather than months. As the cost of living chipped away at Mohammed’s savings, he decided he should start a business here to cover his rent. Four months ago, he opened Café Latakia.
“I have some experience because I used to run a café in a tourist town in Latakia, just for three months of the year during summer season,” he says. “So I decided I should open this café just to earn some money for rent and things like that. But I also opened it so that there is a place where the Latakian people can gather, and where they can communicate every day with friends.”
The road that the café stands on is now known locally as “Little Latakia”—near Mohammed’s place there is also a shawarma shop and a hummus and foul (fava bean dip) place, as well as countless small Syrian grocery stores, all run by people who have fled the coastal city. The Latakians have brought a splash of cosmopolitanism to a once backwater town.
But Mohammed insists that Little Latakia will only exist as long as the war continues in Syria. “We will go back—all the Syrians will,” he says. “Antakya will go back to what it was before.”